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Why Public Education Must Use Public Software

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LibreplanetThis is an essay that attempts to argue in favor of promoting and using free software for public education in the United States. With some modification it should be usable worldwide. Edit it mercilessly as you would any other FDL-licensed text. Originally written on February 7-9, 2009 by Dara Adib.

Public education ideally provides a comprehensive education for every citizen as one of the greatest accomplishments of worldwide civil governments. Without a successful public education system, the well-being of society is threatened.

Americans should be proud to be pioneers in this field. Since 1643, we have constantly improved our education system to exceed the highest global standards.

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson realized that a successful democracy needs an educated public and that freedom can never truly exist when the public is not educated. In his words, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be . . . Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Without an effective education system, the American Revolution would have never gained enough momentum. And without real improvements over time, our democratic system would fail.

But the current state of the American public education system is no longer innovative. By now, many have realized that America no longer holds a monopoly on the math and sciences, and some question if we ever did. Other nations have been making such quick progress that a second Sputnik doesn’t seem far-fetched in the near future.

We can’t risk falling behind on the math and sciences. According to Jefferson, “science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and . . . also essential to its protection against foreign power.” Thankfully, our current President claims to be aware of our education system’s troubles, but is awareness enough?

The problem does not lie with a lack of capacity for performance. America has great minds and great resources. The problem is that our curricula has been unable to gather interest for the sciences. From a student’s perspective, concepts are introduced, covered very quickly, and then left behind for the next concept. After rushing through and concentrating on memorizing facts, equations, and concepts for tests, it’s no wonder that students have no intellectual interest for the subject matter. Test scores don’t equal interest — experimenting for fun on spare time is real interest. With a lack of this real interest, the endless numbers of educational concepts are quickly forgotten, and the student instinctively avoids having anything to do with the respective field later in life. No bright minds want to work on what appears to be boring, and American innovation stagnates.

The solution won’t be easy one bit. It will require almost complete restructuring of advanced science courses. It will also require a completely new mindset that rejects a system that is solely grade-driven. It will come with high costs, but pouring funding won’t solve the problem by itself.

America managed to get a man on the moon only eleven years after managing to get a thirty-pound weight into space. America can and must improve education.

From a technical culture at American universities, a movement has emerged that can contribute to reigniting interest in the sciences. This movement develops at a rapid pace thanks to the blood and toil of a worldwide community of volunteers, advocates, and even corporations. Nearly ten million lines of “code” have been developed so far by the movement and a steadily-growing encyclopedia containing nearly two billion words has been constructed as part of a newly-inspired cultural movement.

This movement respects the freedom of the public by freely allowing them to run, study, modify, adapt, improve, copy, distribute, and redistribute free software. For both ethical and practical reasons, developers of free software give access to the software source code that determines how a program functions and release the software under free licenses that impose few restrictions. Free software directly contrasts with proprietary software, whose publishers focus on maximizing profits by using copyright and contracts as tools to impose restrictions.

For a millenium, European elite hoarded knowledge and the region they ruled remained in the Dark Ages. Society could not progress because the wheel had to be reinvented every time. After the printing press was introduced, knowledge was disseminated on a wide scale like never before and European culture soon began to flourish. Similarly, digital technology and computers of this Information Age allow free software to be copied and modified as information. By imposing few restrictions on the natural path of knowledge-sharing, free software encourages cooperation, the idea of “helping your neighbor,” and the freedom to form a community. Since all significant human advances have depended on the free sharing of ideas, theories, and research, this so-called “piracy” of ideas is actually science at its finest. It’s hypocritical to talk about freedom and claim that sharing is core to education when students can’t even share practical knowledge.

Free software is not just an ideal; it’s no different than the pragmatic nature of American democracy and freedom. The free software programmer benefits because software can be based off the work of others and written as a community; the free software user benefits because freely available software in the public interest is written. Free software has therefore become an economic and social phenomenon, harnessing the power of cooperation and collaboration to succeed where proprietary software development has failed. The software is often more secure, more reliable, and more efficient because it has the potential to combine the power of various commercial and noncommercial interests. Like democracies and the free market, the decentralization of the field is the key to success.

Free software has long-reached the point of practical deployment after decades of development. NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense are examples of organizations that trust free software in extremely mission-critical environments where lives are at stake. In less severe mission-critical environments, free software can keep servers running for many years with requiring a reboot. On personal computers, the free Internet browser Mozilla Firefox has managed to take nearly a quarter of the Internet browser market by word of mouth. Even Microsoft — the world’s largest proprietary software publisher — has cited free software as the number one threat to its profit margin in its most recent annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Clearly something is working.

Public education is supposed to provide a model for its students. Freely available software for the public that anyone can use, learn from, modify, and send back to the system for improvement is certainly an ideal and practical model. Here is software that endorses cooperation and functions on peer review — software that promotes creativity and independent thought. Why subjugate the student to the black boxes of proprietary software when they can learn freely with free software?

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3 Comments

  1. Vonskippy says:

    Public Schools in America have many many (many) problems – but what type software they use is not one of them. Thinking that changing the current status quo (i.e. using Microsoft products) will do anything but add one more problem to their extremely long list is just plain stupid. Lets try and get little Johnny and Mary THINKING not wasting time memorizing useless standardized test info and dorking around with WoW, Facebook, and iTunes.

  2. darryl says:

    Please give some examples where NASA and DoD use FOSS in mission critical applications where lives are at risk.

    Just saying it does not make it a fact.

    So please, the WHOLE truth and nothing but the truth.

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